When the Law Becomes Oprah-fied

“What’s your story?” I had been stopped for driving in excess of the speed limit -- so much in excess, the police officer told me, that he was authorized to levy a fine of $2000 and to temporarily suspend my license. As if to clarify that it was no rhetorical question, he explained, “You have to give me a reason. Otherwise I will have no choice about the penalty.”

I stared at him blankly. I didn’t have a story, no urgent circumstance -- injured child, dying relative, or abusive husband -- to justify my transgression. It ran through my head that if he had a choice with a story then he must have a choice even without one -- but I didn’t pursue the thought. “There’s no reason,” I heard myself saying rather sullenly. “I was just speeding.”

A pause ensued. “You realize,” he said, “that this is a serious infraction. You must be able to keep control of your vehicle.” Another pause. “I could take your keys right now. So I need to know what is going on in your life.”

Now I began to feel not just sullen but defiant. His logic was terrible. The speed I had been driving, though admittedly some 25 miles over the limit, was nowhere near the point at which a decent driver in good conditions would begin to lose control. And if losing control was the issue, then what difference could it make if something was “going on” in my life? It wouldn’t make the law less broken. If I were fleeing from an abusive husband, it would seem likely that I would continue speeding over the following days, weeks, and months out of anxiety and torment. If it turned out that I was racing to the airport because my sister was dying, should not my license be suspended all the more quickly to prevent the speeding that would certainly resume once I was back behind the wheel?

And given that the officer had no way of ascertaining whether I was telling the truth, and that most people will lie when offered such an inducement, why would he make any decision about my penalty based on a personal story?

While these unhelpful thoughts flashed through my mind, I considered how ironic it would be if my license were to be suspended merely because, when invited to do so, I could not come up with a mitigating story. Like most people, I am capable of lying, but I prefer to lie on my own terms, not someone else’s. Fortunately, at the thought of all the inconvenience and humiliation a lost license would cause, my eyes filled with tears -- a good story any time. Seeing these, the officer let me go with a regular -- still hefty -- fine.

In the months following that incident, which came to occupy a place in my thoughts out of proportion to its material significance, I reflected that what the officer had asked of me was probably less a reflection of his personal beliefs and peccadilloes -- he was likely not someone who took pleasure in hearing the personal stories of speeding drivers -- than of the institutional culture within which he worked. His interest in my story almost certainly indicated the emphasis in the criminal justice system, in which not only judges but even police officers are encouraged to understand crime in its social context and to consider not only "intention," always a part of the system, but also a range of personal factors when determining criminal responsibility.

This new orientation to judgment and to determinations of right and wrong is one of the most far-reaching phenomena in our culture today, permeating the juridical, political, and academic realms from root to tip, with manifestations, ranging from the risible to the grave, that are almost always pernicious.